Marriage Equality – The Old Fashioned Version

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The Prop 8 trial in San Francisco has captivated the homo-imagination, not surprisingly. (Posts about the first couple days here and here.) So this seems like an awkward time to suggest anything critical about the institution of marriage itself (even though Nancy Cott did a magnificent job as expert witness in the case over the last day and a half outlining the complicated history of marriage). But here goes:

Among the things that drives me to the highest levels of frustration when I consider the state of feminism today is the way in which women, particularly mothers and wives, have given up on men. Not so long ago we had a rich, systemic and unrelenting critique of the ways in which fathers and husbands felt little or no obligation to do domestic work – whether it be taking care of kids, maintaining the household – even clearing the table – or other “reproductive” work. The fact that men felt entitled to and received a free pass when it came to this work received a thorough working over by those who cared about dismantling the second class status of women. I know this sounds all “second wavy,” but it does make me nuts that we, today’s feminists included, no longer press these issues, and instead shift to other institutional sites (such as employers or the state) the burden of sharing what Martha Fineman calls dependency work.

All ThingsWhat restimulated this annoyance was Liesl Schillinger’s review of Mika Brzezinski’s new book All Things At Once this weekend in the The New York Time Book Review. The review, entitled Her Way, could have just as easily been written by the Times‘ Work and Family beat reporter Lisa Belkin – it was one more relatively shallow account of how tough it is for upper class white women to have it all. Belkin has written this article over and over for the Times, and now Schillinger joins the beat.

The take home “insight” Schillinger offers is how “Brzezinski’s questioning (of the wisdom of being a working mother) will be familiar to all women who shoulder the triple load of career, motherhood and guilt.” This echoes the book’s media pitch put out by the publisher: the book is “a candid and inspiring motivational book that will help women of all ages confront the unique professional and personal challenges they face in the key moments of their lives.”

The Schillinger review highlights how Brzezinski, the well-known TV personality and daughter of Zbigniew Brzezinski, struggled with her fatigue when juggling her demanding job and two small children.”How could I have let myself get so run-down,” Brzezinksi laments, “so exhausted at work that I would fumble over my own feet and fall down a steep flight of stairs with my newborn in my arms?”In response, Schillinger offers empathetically yet problematically: “It’s a question that has no answer, but which is asked, in infinite permutations, by all women who shoulder the triple load of motherhood, career and guilt.” Triple load of motherhood, career and guilt!??? Oh please.

The review, much like Belkin’s writing (see her infuriating NYT Magazine cover article on the “opt-out revolution” for starters), leaves the reader with the impression that poor Mika has taken on this impossible task all by herself – the burden of raising her two kids and the demands of her job are hers alone to manage. I don’t want to minimize the real pressure that upper class women feel who have children and demanding jobs – they surely do. But writing of this sort perpetuates the old-fashioned idea that mothers, even privileged ones, are doing something bad for their children when they work. That’s where the guilt comes in. Guilty of what? Of not devoting all their energies to being a mom?

(Surely a woman of Brzenzski’s class has at least one nanny who cares for Mika’s young children while she’s at work. Indeed, Mika’s successful career likely depends upon the no doubt low-paid work of other women. What of the guilt, the stress, the fatigue her nanny feels caring for someone else’s children as her full-time job?)

You’d think, from the way the article was set up, that Brzezenski was a single mom. Mentioned only in passing was the seemingly marginal fact that she is married to Jim Hoffer, a successful journalist himself. He does not figure in the review as someone who has any role in taking care of the kids, taking care of Mika, or taking care of anything. The kids are her responsibility, and she may well have let them down by having a career. His career is a credential, hers is a liability and a source of guilt. Arghhh.

A couple months ago Suzanne Goldberg and I held a breakfast at a midtown law firm with a group of women who had graduated from Columbia Law School to talk about the law school’s Center for Gender & Sexuality Law. The women we met with had very different experiences of law school and law practice: some having graduated as long as 40 years ago and others only a couple years ago. Perhaps the most interesting moment was when the more senior women asked the younger women whether they would call themselves feminists. “No” most replied – “it’s not something for our generation. We feel burdened by feminism – it means we have to do it all, but we haven’t been given any tools to pull this off: be successful lawyers, mothers, and good wives/partners.” What emerged from the conversation was a sense that the younger women didn’t see feminism as opening up opportunities for women, but rather heaping on expectations. The older women in the room were shocked.

There’s no denying that combining motherhood with wage labor work remains a challenge for most women. I hear it from my female students all the time – unlike their male classmates, the women in law school who want to have children agonize over how to time their legal education, the start of their careers, and beginning a family. Working women continue to be burdened with what Arlie Hochschild termed “the Second Shift,” and the younger women at our breakfast felt the heavy weight of that burden in ways equal to or greater than earlier feminists because of the enormous pressure on them to have robust careers and be mothers, while the men still get a free pass.

As the lgbt community pounds on the gate to marriage, demanding to be let in, it bears repeating that the institution, while an enduring signifier of full citizenship, remains one deeply stratified by gender inequalities and status hierarchies that seem as durable as the institution itself.

Some have argued that allowing same-sex couples to marry will have the revolutionary effect of dismantling the role stereotyping and status hierarchies that persist in marriage. We’ll see – I don’t know. The profoundly conventional arguments being marshaled in favor of marriage equality in the Prop 8 case seem to point in the other direction.

Katherine Franke – cross posted from Gender & Sexuality Law Blog

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